North Korea calls Switzerland’s refusal to sell it ski lifts a ‘serious human rights abuse’

October 7, 2013

North Korean soldiers at work on the country's first ski resort, underneath cables that were to carry ski lifts. (Kim Kwang Hyon/AP)

North Korea, long pegged as perhaps the world's worst human rights abuser, accused Europe of committing  "serious human rights abuse" for refusing to sell ski lifts to the Hermit Kingdom. That's perhaps the most revealing little moment in its breakneck effort to build ski resorts – one with real implications for how the outside world deals with North Korea.

North Korea has been working feverishly on constructing its first-ever ski resort, a lavish project that young leader Kim Jong Un personally set as a top national priority. But it has hit a major snag: It can't get ski lifts because of sanctions.

Unlike nuclear weapons or medium-range missiles, North Korea doesn't have the technology to make its own ski lifts. But the countries that do make them all tend to be in the West, where new sanctions imposed in March make it illegal to sell luxury goods to the Hermit Kingdom. North Korea tried offering millions of dollars to Austrian and French companies to import ski lifts, but both said no.

Finally, North Korea tried to import from a Swiss company, offering $7.7 million for the lifts. It would be a logical choice: Kim went to school in Switzerland, which is presumably where he developed his very expensive love of skiing. And the country's well-known history of neutrality at times extends even to Pyongyang. When the Swiss government blocked the deal, Pyongyang had had enough. It issued a furious response via official state outlet KCNA, declaring, "This is an intolerable mockery of the social system and the people of the DPRK and a serious human rights abuse that politicizes sports and discriminates against the Koreans."

It would be tempting to dismiss the comment as mere rhetorical flourish, not meant literally but just to make a point, but we shouldn't. North Korea's state ideology is one of permanent grievance against the West, which is portrayed as systemically and maliciously persecuting the good and pure people of North Korea. There is no harm too minor or complaint too petty for the state to reiterate its outrage against the West, which is linked closely with the militant nationalism and anti-Western paranoia that are such pillars of the regime. The persecution complex and paranoia can look silly from the outside, even implausible. But they aren't bugs of the system, they're features.

Still, there are hints here of a temper tantrum on behalf of leader Kim, reportedly a big skiing fan. His concern for human rights does not appear to extend with the same enthusiasm to, for example, the ability of his own people to consistently feed themselves. That's not a major revelation, obviously, but it's rare to see such a pointed example of what the regime cares about and what it doesn't care about. How many people could that $7.7 million feed?

This incident is important for what it says about sanctions against North Korea and what sort of punishments can really hurt the regime, hopefully to steer its behavior in a slightly better direction. A major tool for a long time has been withholding food aid; that's gotten the regime worked up but it came at the cost of hurting many innocent North Korean civilians. Blocking the import of luxury goods such as ski lifts also seems to inflict some pain on the ruling powers, but without hurting regular North Koreans. That's an important lesson from the otherwise frivolous ski resort debacle.

More on North Korea:

How North Korea got itself hooked on meth

The ugly truth about North Korea’s "Mass Games"

‘Hope brought me to America’: A North Korean defector tells his inspiring story

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Max Fisher | October 7, 2013